Greetings and salutations to you, my dear reader!
I’m well aware that I’m late in publishing this, but that’s because I just couldn’t put my intended guitarist on the list and had to switch a few things around. I then spent last night, and a good part of this morning, doing some rapid research to freshen my memory about the next guitarist to make the list.
If you don’t know what I’m doing, I’d suggest reading any one of the other 21 articles on this list. In fact, here’s a list of guitarists better than Hendrix. Reading the intro to any one of those will help you understand what I’m doing. I’ve explained it – like 21 times already!
Basically, Rolling Stone Magazine (and other publications) keep sniffing a bunch of ether and then typing out lists that place Jimi Hendrix at the top of the list. These list get titled something like, “Greatest Guitarist!”
Frankly, that’s nonsense.
It is my belief that the “greatest guitarist” should be an objective standard and should be based on metrics such their ability to play the instrument. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
My list has nothing to do with passion, sole, or popularity. It’s about their ability to play their damned instrument, and not about who was a greater personality. Even if we consider influence, Hendrix is still not near the top of the list.
So, my list is as objective as I can make it. I’m not saying Jimi was a bad guitar player. I’m also not saying I don’t like him. Who I like has nothing to do with this list, ideally. (I am a human and some bias has surely crept through.)
Jimi was a great artist, fantastic performer, and a great asset to music. He just wasn’t all that adept at playing his instrument!
I got a funny comment recently. “Yeah, but when you hear a Jimi Hendrix song, you know it’s Hendrix.” They said this as if it was a valid rebuttal! It’s not. Hendrix sounded like Hendrix ’cause he didn’t have the technical ability to sound different!
So, my goal has been to fix this silly nonsense and establish a list of guitarists who are better than Hendrix. It’s not actually hard to find guitarists that play better!
And, as there’s some subjectivity, you’re certainly able to change the places about where these folks fall on the list. I’m not really going in order of best to worst but better than Hendrix, at least not after the first ten or so. Even there, one could reason their way to putting those artists in different locations.
There’s also guitarists that I don’t know about. Feel free to contact me and suggest them. I don’t actually know every guitarist out there, so I’m very much open to suggestions for inclusion.
Anyhow, let’s get to the point and get this next article published so that you can tell me how wrong you think I am!
#22 Duane Allman
Sometimes, people will ask me about what they think Jimi would have done had he lived longer. The answer is drugs, by the way. But, they usually want to imagine what music he’d have made, had he just lived a few years long or had a bit more time before heading off to the great jam session in the sky.
Aside: He sometimes had the nickname of “Skydog.” That’s a horrible nickname. We won’t be using it.
Truth be told, I don’t usually ponder that. If I’m going to spend the time trying to imagine things like that, I’m far more likely to imagine what it’d have been like had Duane lived just a little bit longer.
Even if he’d never had the Allman Brother’s, he’d probably still warrant inclusion on my list. Yup… Duane was actually quite an accomplished session musician. Those who know me will also know that I have some fond memories of my own similar experiences.
Duane, unlike myself, actually got things like credit and was able to work on some spectacular session work. He was also more influential on what it was he’d be playing and, as I understand, worked a bit more closely with the artists he recorded for.
I will share a bit about what my experiences are.
Session musicians are people who go into the studio and record on behalf of the artists. Yup. You read that right. The music you hear on the album may not have actually been played by the artist you see on stage.
My experiences are that you get paid a certain amount, get no credit (or limited credit), sign away your rights to royalties, and sometimes never even see the band for whom you’re recording.
Most of the time, you walk into the booth (maybe after a short discussion), and play exactly what they tell you to play. Sometimes, you’ll be told that they want something that is at a certain tempo, with a certain sound, and what key you’re to play in. I don’t really prefer those sessions, by the way.
Those sessions take longer and people aren’t always very good at describing what they want the end product to look like. I’d much rather play exactly what’s on the paper – be it a quick read from standard sheet music or tab. Then you pay me. Then I leave. I like that.
Not so much with Allman. In much of his studio work, the guitar track is all his own.
“How can you pick someone who just played the slide?” You might ask me.
“He didn’t.” I’d respond. “Your hearing is just wrong and many people make that mistake.”
I should back up and start earlier, as many may not have any idea what I’m talking about.
Have you ever heard the term, “Southern Rock?” Well, that tone is partially due to one fella named Duane Allman. That slide playing (not to be mistaken for a slide guitar)? That’s his influence. Ever hear of Joe Walsh, Lynyrd Skynyrd, or even Derek Trucks? Yup… Allman’s influence – all of them.
So, let’s go back to the beginning – which is probably where I should have started this article.
On November 20th, in the year 1946, Allman was born in Nashville, TN. His brother Gregg would be born just about a year later. His father was an NCO in the U.S. Army and would eventually become a recruiting officer.
Something doesn’t quite add up and I’m unable to find clarity in my research. So, I’ll try to explain it – but it doesn’t make much sense.
Duane’s father was murdered in 1949. Their mother wanted to train to become an accountant, so she shipped them off to a military academy. Except, Duane was the eldest and he was born in 1946 and the death was just four years later. They were living near Norfolk, VA at the time.
I know of no military schools that accept students at the ages of four and five. (Gregg was a year younger.) Either way, they both got shipped off to a military academy and both didn’t like it very much. The academy was down in Lebanon, TN.
I have checked and I can’t find any of the school’s information (they ceased operation in 1986) and determine what ages they accepted and when. While the story seems true enough, I think the history is a bit confusing and there’s something missing. Even if we add, say, two years before their mother went back to work, they boys would still be age 7 and 6.
So, I don’t know! Yup, there’s stuff I don’t know. Shh! Don’t tell anyone.
Now, in 1957 (ages 10 and 11-ish), the family moved to Daytona Beach, Florida. As near as I can tell, that’s when they’d start spending summers with their grandmother – in Nashville, TN.
It was while visiting his grandmother that Gregg, not Duane, would learn the basics of guitar playing from a neighbor. In 1960, Gregg (again, not Duane) was able to save up enough money to buy a Teisco Silvertone guitar. Duane bought a Harley Davidson motorcycle.
It should be noted that Duane is left-handed and Gregg is not. Obviously, Gregg bought himself a regular guitar. Duane would learn to play right-handed, instead of playing a left-handed guitar.
As only one brother had a guitar, they’d sometimes fight over it. That is until Duane wrecked his motorcycle and sold the remains so that he could buy a Silvertone of his own. By this time, he’d already set himself to playing right-handed and he never seems to have changed this.
By the way, his mother would eventually buy Duane a Gibson Les Paul “Junior.” I have absolutely no idea if she bought one for Gregg and I assume the brothers fought over that too! Either way, they got to see B.B. King play in Nashville and that inspired them to get good and Duane actually became the better guitarist of the two.
I’d also urge you to remember “motorcycle.” That’s going to become very important, later in this article.
The two brothers would start to perform in 1961. They’d play with pretty much anyone who’d have them and played for a number of bands. Duane would also quit school (I’m telling you, there’s a trend) to focus on music. His brother, Gregg, would remain in school and actually graduate. Duane was the better guitarist of the two and Gregg finished high school…
Hmm… I’m telling you, kids… If you want to rock and roll and make it to my list, it appears that dropping out of school gives you a distinct edge over the competition! (Yeah, I’m a big helper!)
Anyhow, of all those bands that they formed or played with, none was significant in any way – except maybe one called The Escorts. Their sole claim to fame is that they once opened for The Beach Boys.
Some of those folks would form a new band called the Allman Joys. No, I’m not kidding. They really called themselves that. (One good pun deserves another, so I’ll add that calling themselves that was just nuts! I’m not even remotely sorry for that.)
They’d change their name again and move to Los Angeles, California in 1967. This time, they were known as Hour Glass. Hour Glass released two albums, both of which are not really remarkable in any way – other than for historical reference. It probably didn’t help that Hour Glass wanted to concentrate on the blues and Liberty Records wanted to market them as a pop band.
Now, I told you all that just so I can tell you this!
Enter the year 1968… It was, by most accounts, a good year for music. Except, a little noticed event would change rock forever.
Duane had been tooling around on a horse. He’d fallen off the horse and hurt his left elbow. He was nursing his injury when Gregg stopped by and left a package outside the door, rang the bell, and left. Gregg didn’t stick around because he was mad that his brother had been reckless and gotten himself hurt. So, he just rang the bell and left.
Inside that package was a record of no significance and a bottle of a drug known as Coricidin. Notably, Coricidin is not a pain reliever. What they do contain is a disassociative drug known as dextromethorphan, but you gotta take a pretty high dose to get any effect.
Once again, history isn’t very clear. It doesn’t state if he ate the drugs or not! Frankly, I’m pretty sure that’s one of those things that should have been noted, but as near as I can tell is that he poured the pills out of the bottle.
Shortly after that, Duane would call Gregg and insist that Gregg come over immediately. Gregg was willing to do that, and meandered over to see what Duane was so excited about.
It seems that (and we’ve no idea if he ate the pills in the bottle) Duane had emptied the Coricidin bottle, washed off the label, and was using it to play slide.
Except, well, Duane hadn’t actually ever played slide guitar before that. This is what Gregg had to say about it:
“Duane had never played slide before, he just picked it up and started burnin’. He was a natural.”
Those bottles are no longer manufactured, by the way. So, if you have access to one – you should let me, and other people, know. We will pay you handsomely for one. Anything from the early 1970s and back will be of interest to a number of guitarists. They do make replica bottles, but many folks (including myself) would be quite interested in any original bottles you may have access to.
Which is why you now hear slide guitar in Southern Rock. (This is not even remotely related as to why you have pedal steel guitar, which is played with a slide, in country music.) It all goes back to that one fateful day when Gregg gave Duane some drugs.
I didn’t say it was a short story!
Now… What about that session musician stuff I was typing about up above?
It was while with the Hour Glass that he was noticed by Rick Hall, the owner of the FAME studios where they’d recorded. Hall hired Allman to play on an album called Hey Jude, by Wilson Pickett. That impressed many people, including one Mr. Eric Clapton. Clapton said this:
“I remember hearing Wilson Pickett’s ‘Hey Jude’ and just being astounded by the lead break at the end. I had to know who that was immediately – right now.”
In short order, FAME would sell Duane’s contract to Atlantic Records. While there, Allman would record for such artists as Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Wilson Picket (again), and even Boz Scaggs. He did all that in a very short span of time, totaling maybe just a few months.
Allman didn’t really care for it entirely. He felt he was being stifled. It was around this time that The Allman Brothers Band began to form – but that would be a pretty slow process.
In 1970, he’d be invited to record with Eric Clapton, then with Derek and the Dominos. The album known as Layla and Other Assorted Love Stories features many tracks that were done by Duane. If you want to tell who does what, Clapton is playing the Fender and Duane’s parts are the meaty parts done on a Gibson Les Paul.
As Allman’s slide continued to mature, The Allman Brothers Band would see some success and would have a pretty heavy touring schedule. It was on a break from both touring and recording that the above-mentioned motorcycle reminder comes into play.
In 1971, on October 29, Duane was speeding around on his Harley Davidson Sportster, in Macon, GA. A crane truck (the kind for moving lumber) stopped at an intersection and Duane attempted to avoid it. He hit either the ball or the back of the truck, was tossed about 90′, and had his bike land on him. He was alive when he made it to the hospital, but died not long after.
So, when I think about artists who might have gone on to do even greater things, I’m more likely to think of Duane Allman instead of Jimi Hendrix.
How does the rest of the world rank ’em? Pretty well, actually. Rolling Stone has him higher than I do, at #9. You can find them in top-ten lists from a variety of sources. I place Allman lower on the list because he didn’t display a great deal of versatility. It’s not that he always played slide, it’s that he didn’t really excel in other areas as much. Still, he was truly a master guitarist.
And, I suppose, this is already long enough. How about we actually hear why he’s on this list? That seems like a good thing to do. Let’s start with this:
Now, you’ll have to listen carefully – as much of the recording is overshadowed by other instrumentation and mixing choices. So, if you can’t turn the volume up then grab a good pair of headphones and give that a listen.
That’s not that spectacular, but would be where he’d be heard by Eric Clapton and it really shows up better if you can hear the actual guitar work. Still, that’s an early example in a very short career.
Which, of course, leads us to this:
The GLP is Duane’s work on slide and the outro is probably the most important piece to listen to in that recording. That’s the signature slide that you may recognize as being prevalent in what we now call Southern Rock.
To mix things up, here’s a song without a slide – that people sometimes mistake for having slide in it, because of his fluidity.
Why two tracks without slide and only one with? Because I need to demonstrate that he was more versatile than ‘just’ a slide player – and he was. In that video, you’ll actually get to see him at work.
And, there you have it. Yet another guitarist who was better than Hendrix. His academic pursuits in the study of music aren’t all that great, but he still managed to intuit music theory. Was he the first to play slide? Not a chance. However, he was one of the best and one of the few who brought it into a genre of music.
Now, I like to leave you with one for the road. This week, I want to leave you with two. First, Blue Sky:
Finally, some more of that delightful slide, with Statesboro Blues:
And, there you have it. Sorry for the length of this article but there was a lot to cover. Thank you for taking the time to read it and I look forward to your comments. Until next time…
Shut up and play us a song!